A Day In The Life Of The 'World's Best Restaurant'

Ferran Adria in a creative session. i i

Ferran Adria, head chef at elBulli, in a creative session experimenting with new gastronomical concoctions. Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun/Courtesy of Phaidon Press hide caption

itoggle caption Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun/Courtesy of Phaidon Press
Ferran Adria in a creative session.

Ferran Adria, head chef at elBulli, in a creative session experimenting with new gastronomical concoctions.

Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun/Courtesy of Phaidon Press
Melon with ham. i i

At elBulli, a dish called melon con jamon, melon with ham, is served in a champagne flute. Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun/Courtesy of Phaidon Press hide caption

itoggle caption Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun/Courtesy of Phaidon Press
Melon with ham.

At elBulli, a dish called melon con jamon, melon with ham, is served in a champagne flute.

Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun/Courtesy of Phaidon Press

Ferran Adria began his culinary career almost 30 years ago as a dishwasher. Now he is head chef at elBulli, which has been named the best restaurant in the world three years in a row by international food writers and critics.

Before you run to the phone to make a reservation, there are a few things you should know.

The wait list is about a year long. The restaurant says it receives 2 million requests for 8,000 places each year. And it might be difficult just to pop-in — elBulli is perched on a remote beach on the Costa Brava in northeastern Spain.

And don't be surprised if the ham and melon is served in a wine flute, or if the fondue includes monkfish liver, or if some part of your meal is foam.

Speaking with NPR's Alison Stewart through a translator, Adria describes the experience of dining at elBulli.

"The 30-course meal is a bit like a film," he tells Stewart. "It has different moments in which you feel and experience different feelings. It could be shock, provocation, emotion, sense of humor. We keep the courses quite small so that you can get through all of them. It's an experience throughout all these little dishes."

All the action, preparation, people and creativity that go into an Adria meal are documented in a new book, A Day at elBulli: An Insight Into the Ideas, Methods and Creativity of Ferran Adria. The book contains 30 recipes, but Adria says those recipes are not meant for the amateur chef.

"This is not a book for home cooking," he says. "It's not really meant or intended for people to try these recipes at home. I really believe that there are books that should talk about home cooking, and others are about high-end gastronomy. I think these two have to be separate – for example, when I buy a book on architecture, I'm not intending to build a building, I'm buying because I'm interested in it."

The restaurant is open only six months out of the year, and on those days, Adria keeps a grueling schedule — he says he starts at about 9 a.m. and isn't in bed until 2 a.m. But when the restaurant is closed during the other six months, Adria travels the world to pick up new ideas for his laboratory kitchen. It is there that he experiments with texture, temperature and ingredients to create new culinary experiences for his diners. Adria is probably best known for his innovative uses of sweet and savory foams in his dishes.

"Food is one of those incredibly creative things," he says. "It's a very multi-sensory experience in which many of the senses are used. I'm sure a painter would dream to be able to create a painting that could be tasted, smelled, heard – I think that's part of what makes it rather special and unique."

Adria's fascination with food didn't start at childhood. His rise from dishwasher to head chef at one of the world's most famous restaurants was driven by a passion for cooking that developed during his adult years — something that Adria says makes him more willing to try different, nontraditional approaches to cooking.

"As a boy, I didn't hang out in the kitchen watching all the people cook," he says. "I just started out much later in life, and this is really important because I wasn't passionate as a young person and that has given me a very pragmatic approach to my career and my profession. Not having this passion starting out as a young person really marked who I am today."

Adria says he's still a man who enjoys a ham sandwich every once in a while, as well as socializing over simple foods with friends. On the other hand, high-end cuisine — what he calls a "gastronomical experience" — must be approached very differently by the participants.

"I was walking around the SoHo [in New York City] last night, and I saw many people around in different kinds of situations," he says. "Friends enjoying themselves, enjoying meals that were more social rather than gastronomical. Then I also saw other situations that were more intimate, and I think this is a very important difference that one should point at – that a meal can be either more social or more gastronomical. It can't be a combination."

Excerpt: 'A Day At ElBulli'

A Day at elBulli

Ingredients

  • 500 g (2 cups) milk
  • 9 x 2 g gelatin leaves, rehydrated in cold water
  • 40 g (2 2/3 tbsp) virgin pine nut oil
  • 75 g (2/3 cup) toasted pine nut powder
  • Salt
Marshmallow de pinones i i

The marshmallow de pinones from elBulli. Francesc Guillamet/Courtesy of Phaidon Press hide caption

itoggle caption Francesc Guillamet/Courtesy of Phaidon Press
Marshmallow de pinones

The marshmallow de pinones from elBulli.

Francesc Guillamet/Courtesy of Phaidon Press

Marshmallow de pinones

(Pine nut marshmallows)

Serves 10

    Directions

1. Place 400 g (1 ¾ cups) milk in the freezer until it cools to 3° C/37°F.

2. Meanwhile, mix the gelatin with the remaining milk in a pan.

3. Dissolve the gelatin at 40°C/105°F and pour into a mixing bowl.

4. Start to whip the mixture. After 30 seconds, add all the cooled milk in one pour.

5. Continue to whip for 3 minutes. Add the pine nut oil.

6. Keep whipping for another 30 seconds and spread out over a transparent sheet to a thickness of 2.5 cm (1 in).

7. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

8. Cut into 2.5 cm (1 in) cubes.

9. Refrigerate in an airtight container.

10. Immediately before serving, lightly salt the cubes and coat 4 sides with toasted pine nut powder, leaving 2 uncoated sides.

    Finishing and Presentation

Serve 2 pieces per person on a blue glass tray.

Cutlery: None.

How to eat: In a single mouthful.

What happens between a restaurant and its guests?

A dish is a conversation between the chef and the guest, and the knowledge and experience of the chef, waiter and guest all inform the part they will play in a meal. The distance between the chef at the kitchen workbench and the guest at the dining room table can be reduced by the care and attention of the waiter, who performs a pivotal role by helping the guests adapt to the rhythm of the kitchen and maximize their experience of the food. The participants bring to the experience their own values, expertise and sensory perceptions, and these can be broadly categorized as follows.

CHEF: EMITTER

Ability to perceive tastes and flavours

Common sense and judgement

    Experience in other fields
  • art
  • other areas of the food industry
  • industrial design
  • science and technology
    Knowledge
  • of history and culture
  • of cooking techniques
  • of products
  • of kitchen technology

Organization

Philosophy

Creative and artistic abilities

WAITER: TRANSMITTER

Creates a warm atmosphere during dinner

Conveys the philosophy behind the food

Serves the food to the table

Explains the dishes

Controls quality

Controls timing

GUEST: RECEPTOR
    Gastronomic experience and knowledge
  • of ingredients
  • of dishes
  • of restaurants and chefs
  • of styles and characteristics
    Senses [= flavour]
  • sight
  • hearing
  • touch
  • smell
  • taste
    The sixth sense (the ability to enjoy cooking with the intellect), which can be stimulated in these ways:
  • transgression of restaurant conventions
  • childhood memories
  • magic
  • playfulness
  • irony and provocation
  • decontextualization
  • surprise
  • a 'knowing wink'
  • recognition of a cultural reference
  • confounded expectations
  • deception
    Mind
  • guests' unique interpretations of taste
    Memory
  • of ingredients
  • of family meals
  • of visits to restaurants

Spirit and emotions

Excerpted from A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adria, Albert Adria and Juli Soler. Copyright 2008, Phaidon Press Ltd.

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